The World’s Eye and the World’s Heart: How to be a Public Intellectual

eye quilt
Image source: York Heritage Quilters Guild Blog

At a time of political discord and increased activism on our campuses and in our communities, some of us may be seeking appropriate and productive ways to offer our professional perspectives as highly trained academics and educators. As a matter of fact, those of us academically prepared in the field of American literary and cultural studies have much to offer a society that is grappling with what it means (and has meant) to be an American, whose story matters, and who gets to control the narrative. Indeed, the American literature and American literary history we have spent years studying, researching, and teaching can provide remarkable and hopeful insight into this daunting political moment.

Our field birthed the original American public intellectuals Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who both lectured in the Lyceum movement and endeavored to make their ideas relevant and useful to the American public. Thoreau first lectured on “Civil Disobedience” and Walden to his Concord, Massachusetts friends and neighbors. Emerson’s 1837 “American Scholar” address tells us that the fully engaged American scholar is not sequestered from the public, but “breathes and lives on public illustrious thoughts.” The public intellectual, in Emerson’s view, is fully integrated into public life as “the world’s eye” and “the world’s heart.”

Although we may not see ourselves as public intellectuals in the distinguished tradition of Emerson and Thoreau or the more contemporary Stanley Fish, Claudia Rankine, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, many of us are probably already engaged in outreach, teaching, and other efforts as public intellectuals.

Public Outreach: The Service of the Public Good

john jaspers flag
Flag (1954) by John Jaspers

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a public intellectual as “[a]n intellectual who expresses views (esp. on popular topics) accessible to a general audience.” A recent article in AAUP’s Academe explains that “[p]ublic intellectuals communicate their research in ways that are accessible to the public and translatable to the needs of communities.” According to the article, public intellectuals “apply their disciplinary knowledge and expertise to the service of the public good.”

When asked why they engage in public intellectual outreach, a survey by Morrison & Tyson Communications found that faculty did so for the following reasons:

To improve public understanding of their areas of expertise.

To enhance the reputation of their institutions.

To enjoy talking with people who have an interest in their work.

          Source: Inside Higher Ed, Scholar as Public Intellectual, January 21, 2011

In a time of great suspicion of scholars and expert knowledge, our outreach as public intellectuals could lead to regaining the public’s trust of academic institutions and academia in general.

The Organic Intellectual : Aligning Your Personal and Professional Values

pussy pink
Pussy Pink Urchin (2017) by Wangechi Mutu

On my own campus in a small town in Texas, pubic intellectual outreach ranges from a music professor who conducts the local symphony orchestra; a political science professor who coordinates a program that trains student to write grants for local non-profit agencies during the summer; and a chemist who hosts a “Citizen Scientist” podcast with her husband. Many of my colleagues regularly give public lectures about their areas of academic expertise to local civic organizations, historical societies, and literary groups.

Other colleagues serve as board members for community non-profits that benefit from the specialized academic training of local faculty. A colleague and friend who teaches in Idaho has a women’s studies background that contributes to her work as a board member of the local YWCA women’s shelter.

Speaking of this friend, she recently wrote a guest post for PALS on her very successful Moby-Dick half marathon, a public outreach program organized by her students. Some of the most innovative and effective public intellectual outreach projects include students. Andrew D. Kaufman’s successful “Books Behind Bars” outreach class for students at the University of Virginia is another example.

Yet many colleagues bristle at the term “public intellectual” because it seems to reinforce the very elitism and hierarchy that we aim to diminish when we bring our knowledge into our communities. Antonio Gramsci’s notion of an “organic intellectual” blurs the boundary between the “sacred” ivy tower and the “profane” general public. According to Gramsci, “traditional” intellectuals replicate the elite class structure and hegemony of academia. By contrast, “organic” intellectuals are academics who come from and work on behalf of the people.

Today we might think of an organic intellectual as an academic whose intellectual, personal, and political values are authentically aligned and expressed through meaningful public outreach.

Writing for a General Audience


Writing for a general audience can take the form of opinion articles for local, regional, and national newspapers. Such articles might offer perspective on current events through the lens of our academic area of expertise. We are also qualified to write about issues facing higher education, as did my colleague in response to the proposed graduate student tax in the recently passed tax bill.

Scholars may feel unprepared to do this type of writing. When I drafted an opinion article on The Handmaid’s Tale and Texas politics, I was advised that what I saw as an already concise 1,000-word article had to be trimmed by an additional 350 words. I was also told (albeit gently) to adjust my vocabulary to the 7th-grade level. Although I had to adapt to this new writing format and style, it was gratifying to have my ideas about a timely issue published right away. Unlike the peer-reviewed academic articles I have published in scholarly volumes, I received feedback from my audience almost immediately. I continue to receive comments from members of the public who come across my article online.

There are any number of articles about writing for a general and popular audience, but one very useful resource is the OpEd Project. The goal of this organization is “to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world,” particularly those of women. To that end, the OpEd Project offers workshops on how to write for newspaper opinion pages, with strategies on how to pitch an idea and find a venue for publication. Their website has excellent advice on the format of an opinion article and what editors are looking for.

Activism and Pedagogy

Image Source: Edmond Historical Society and Museum

Many debate the role of activism as part of our scholarly identities. Yet these days we may find that even asking the essential questions at the heart of our field — the very questions that guide our research and teaching — can be a form of activism simply because these questions disrupt the status quo. Those of us with interdisciplinary commitments to fields such as gender and women’s studies, environmental studies, and critical race studies may find that activism is an organic extension of what we do in our research and in the classroom. Our own public outreach and activism is a way to model an intellectually engaged and active citizenship to our students.

The classroom itself may be considered a type of public intellectual outreach; ideally, our students will take and disseminate knowledge from our classes into the world as members of an informed and voting citizenry. Recent crowd-sourced syllabi such as #CharlestonSyllabus and #PostTrumpSyllabus exemplify the intersection of activism and pedagogy by constructively using expert knowledge to advance conversations about the most pressing issues of our time.

Pedagogical writing and scholarship, such as that offered through the Pedagogy and American Literary Studies site, is also an example of public outreach. In a time when many do not see the value of higher education, good teaching and its outcomes “must be made visible through artifacts that capture its richness and complexity.” Especially as the structure of the professoriate changes, we need more opportunities to substantively and transparently discuss our teaching and pedagogy as a means to move the broader professional and cultural conversation about teaching and student learning beyond outcomes-based assessment and “return on investment.”

Considerations and Questions

brain circles
Brain Circles by Marguerite Jay Gignoux

Even with the protections of academic freedom, scholars might want to be aware of the possible perils of public intellectual work, especially graduate students and contingent faculty members. Many academics may prefer to compartmentalize their professional research and teaching, their political commitments, and their personal values. And many may find that they simply do not have time to commit to public intellectual outreach.

However, many scholars have found public outreach to be a rewarding form of intellectual work. And it is a worthy and necessary endeavor. With so much at stake, our role as the eyes and hearts of our democracy has never been more crucial.

  1. Is there a better term for “public intellectual” than “public intellectual”?
  2. What can you do or are you already doing to align your intellectual, personal, and political commitments?
  3. What changes can we make in the profession to value, reward, and recognize public outreach?
  4. Have you been involved in any outreach projects as a public intellectual in your community?



Takin’ Care of Business: Exploring the Early American Book Trade

We spend so much time in the classroom discussing the value of literature as an artform that sometimes it’s easy to forget that literature is an industry and books are commodities. Most authors depend on sales as a source of income and a guarantee that their messages reach audiences.

I first recognized the importance of addressing the economic side of literature several years ago when discussing Susanna Rowson’s sentimental novel Charlotte Temple, first published in the United States in 1794. When I mentioned that Charlotte Temple is considered the first American “bestselling” (to use the term anachronistically) novel, several students asked questions like “What made a novel a ‘bestseller’?” and “How many copies needed to be sold?” These questions then led to broader questions concerning the early American book trade, such as “Where did people buy books?” and “How much did books cost?”

Charlotte Temple

Although it’s difficult to establish a complete picture of how the early American book trade looked, due to lacking records and missing sales figures, much concrete information does exist on the subject. I recommend James Gilreath’s article “American Book Distribution” (1986) and Cathy N. Davidson’s chapter “The Book in the New Republic” from Revolution and the Word (1986, revised 2004) as useful and comprehensive introductory resources on the history of the early American book trade.

Revolution and the Word

What follows is an outline of key points Gilreath and Davidson address in relation to the most common questions my students have posed about the book trade. Ideally, these bite-size factoids can be easily integrated into classroom discussion.

What role did printers play in the creation of early American books?

According to Davidson, “The printer’s main business, in short, was to turn the author’s manuscript into a salable commodity and then to sell it” (79). Printers decided which texts should be published and determined both the quantity to produce and the cost to the consumer.

Davidson also reveals the collaborative relationship between printers and authors: “The printer’s artistic control usually began with his deciphering the original handwritten text, for rarely would he query the author about smudged, illegible words or problematic passages” (79). Printers then proofread and edited manuscripts when converting them to print.

Additionally, printers were responsible for the “physical layout of both the page and the book as a whole,” selecting the typeface and utilizing various type sizes and spacing to emphasize certain passages (Davidson 79). Davidson notes, “A fairly innocuous sentence could easily be given a more sensational cast by strategic italicizing or capitalizing of words such as SEDUCTION or INCEST” (79). Such strategies helped to sell books.

American printing press 1780s

How were early American novels sold and distributed?

Distribution problems were huge obstacles in the sale of early American novels. Since methods of transportation were often limited or unreliable, the distribution of books in the 18th Century was usually local and centered around major cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The distribution of books gradually increased with the improvement and further development of roads and canals. Also, large quantities of books were imported from England in the late 17th and 18th Centuries. Printers developed cooperative networks of distribution with other printers both domestically and overseas.

Davidson and Gilreath identify four major methods for the distribution and sale of books in early America: bookstores, libraries, book agents and hawkers, and subscriptions.

Bookstores: Bookstores existed in both major cities and rural areas. Gilreath notes, however, that bookstores often “depended on the sale of nonbook items for a substantial portion of their income” (516). Gilreath continues: “In urban areas the nonbook goods were stationary materials; in rural areas such goods were general store stock such as shovels, seeds, and dry goods” (516).

Libraries: Both Gilreath and Davidson emphasize the increasingly important role of libraries, specifically in relation to the distribution of fictional works. Davidson explains that by 1800, “most larger cities had several libraries catering to different classes and different tastes; even small towns generally boasted of at least one library…[making] books both accessible and affordable to a rapidly growing and largely new class of readers” (88). Early American libraries came in three varieties: social libraries, institutional libraries, and circulating libraries. Students are often surprised by the way some of these libraries differ from modern-day libraries.

Benjamin Franklin founded the first social library in Philadelphia in 1731. By 1800, 376 social libraries existed in the United States. According to Davidson, social libraries typically charged a small annual membership fee and sometimes required the purchase of shares, which could cost up to $20.

Institutional libraries were usually academic libraries linked with colleges; therefore, they weren’t accessible to the general public. According to Gilreath, such libraries “were built by the donation of estates rather than by an aggressive book-purchasing program that sought to measure its clients’ reading interests” (524).

Davidson defines the circulating library as “a commercial library (typically owned by a bookseller) that stocked the most popular books of the day and rented them at terms affordable even by common laborers” (89). Major circulating libraries, such as the Philadelphia Circulating Library, charged $6 annually and “frequently allowed subscribers to pay their subscriptions by the year, half-year, quarter, or even month—a concession to those who might not have much ready cash on hand” (Davidson 89). Gilreath notes that since circulating libraries often carried a high number of fictional works, it “suggests that Americans were interested in imaginative literature but did not think that it had enough permanent value to justify the purchase of these books for personal collections” (525). Novels were often perceived as a “commodity that could be leased for a brief period and then returned to a vendor,” and such an attitude, Gilreath believes, played a major role in the “struggles of the American writer” throughout the 19th Century.

Book Agents and Book Hawkers: Agents and hawkers were essentially travelling salesmen who ensured that books reached the reading public outside of major cities. According to Davidson, the difference between agents and hawkers is in areas of distribution. Agents concentrated on “larger and more accessible country towns” (83) while hawkers “supplied booksellers in little towns or villages or dealt directly with individual buyers who otherwise had no ready access to the book trade” (82).

Book Hawker

Subscriptions: For printers, the preferred method of book distribution was subscription publication, which entailed consumers advance ordering books, so printers could accurately assess how many copies of a book to print based on the preestablished demand. Printers could also determine whether there was even enough interest in a book to merit its publication.

Discussing post-Civil War publishing, Gilreath describes the benefit of subscription publication as follows: “ Although traditional publishers characteristically printed only about 2,500 copies of a book and kept large numbers of titles in print, subscription book publishers concentrated on fewer titles but issued them in numbers far exceeding those published by traditional trade” (554).

Often book agents and hawkers were responsible for travelling from town to town seeking subscriptions for upcoming publications. According to William Powell, “Subscribers to books undoubtedly considered themselves patrons of the press and were fully aware of the fact that only through their common support could the books be issued” (qtd. in Gilreath 535-6). In the 19th Century, Mark Twain even commented on the importance of subscriptions in the sales of his novels: “When a subscription book of mine sells 60,000, I always think I know wither 50,000 of them went. They went to people who don’t visit bookstores” (qtd. in Gilreath 557).

How much did novels cost in early America?

Early American novels were expensive, which accounts for the dramatic rise in popularity of libraries. According to Davidson, the average late 18th-century novel would have cost about four times more than a hardcover novel today. Davidson adds, however, that a “more meaningful measure” would be as follows: “In 1800, a carpenter in Massachusetts earned $1 per day, an unskilled laborer half as much. A pound of sugar cost $.13, a pair of leather shoes $.80, and cotton cloth $1 a yard. A novel typically cost between. $.75 and $1.50” (85). For the cost of a $1 novel like Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, the average day laborer could purchase a bushel of potatoes and a half bushel of corn (Davidson 85).

Davidson interestingly highlights what book costs would mean specifically to schoolteachers. Davidson uses the example of one 18th-century schoolteacher who kept comprehensive accounts of his finances. Ethan Allen Greenwood earned $3 a month at his first teaching job and $14 a month at his second, and his estimated expenses (including $.37 per dinner at a local tavern, $.20 per week for his laundry, $2.75 per month for firewood, $1.12 for a stagecoach ride) left little room for buying novels. However, records reveal that Greenwood “read nearly a volume a day even during his poorest student days” since he, as Davidson explains, “largely borrowed these books by joining three libraries” with low membership fees (87).

The cost of novels didn’t substantially decrease until the rise of mass printing technologies and the development of cheap, easily accessible paperback editions of novels in the 1830s and 40s.

Printing Press 6 Cyl

What made a novel a “bestseller” in early America?

Since the term “bestseller” didn’t actually exist until 1902, seven years after the first “list” of high-selling books was produced (Sutherland 17), applying a term like “bestseller” to early American novels really just means that a novel sold a much higher number of copies compared to the average.

The average printer in the 18th Century, as Davidson notes, “hoped that [a] volume might sell several hundred copies, enough to reimburse the production costs and perhaps pay something over” (75). in 1794, Matthew Carey initially printed 1000 copies (a large run for the time) of the first edition of Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, but he had no way of knowing how popular the novel would become. By the early 19th Century, Rowson’s novel sold almost 40,000 copies, making it the highest selling American novel until the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Of course, it’s important to remember that Stowe was publishing after the advent of paperback printing.

While Rowson’s novel sold tremendously, her profits from the novel were not substantial enough for her family to live on, and she, like many other early American writers, did have to supplement novel writing with alternate means of income. James Fenimore Cooper is one of the first early American “bestsellers” who was able to live entirely on his income as a writer. Cooper sold up to 40,000 copies of his novels each year, earning an average yearly income of $6500 (Davidson 75).


Works Cited:

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford UP, 2004.

Gilreath, James. “American Book Distribution.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 95, 1986, pp. 501-83.

Sutherland, John. Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2007.